Home > In a Dark, Dark Wood(8)

In a Dark, Dark Wood(8)
Author: Ruth Ware

For some unfathomable reason, I felt myself flush scarlet and my fingers lost their grip on the teacup, slopping tea onto my knee. I busied myself wiping it up with the corner of my scarf and then looked up to find Nina had slipped back inside. She was holding her tobacco pouch and rolling up with one hand, watching me steadily with her wide dark eyes as she did.

I forced myself to speak. ‘Not much to tell. I, um … I met Clare at school, like Nina. We—’

We haven’t spoken for ten years.

I don’t know why I’m here.

I don’t know why I’m here.

I swallowed, painfully. ‘We … lost touch a bit, I guess.’ My face felt hot. The stove was really starting to throw out heat. I went to tuck my hair behind my ears, but I’d forgotten it had been cut, and my fingers only skimmed the short strands, my skin warm and damp beneath. ‘Um, I’m a writer. I went to UCL and I started work at a magazine after university but I was pretty crap at it – probably my own fault, I spent all my time scribbling my novel instead of doing research and making contacts. Anyway, I sold my first book when I was twenty-two and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.’

‘And you support yourself entirely on your books?’ Tom raised an eyebrow. ‘Respect.’

‘Well, not entirely. I mean I do the odd bit of online teaching here and there … editorial reports and stuff. And I was lucky—’ Lucky? I wanted to bite my tongue. ‘Well, maybe not lucky, that’s not the right word, but my grandad died when I was in my teens and I got some money, enough for a tiny studio flat in Hackney. It’s absolutely minuscule, only room for me and my laptop, but I don’t have any rent to pay.’

‘I think it’s really nice that you’ve all kept in touch,’ Tom said. ‘You and Clare and Nina, I mean. I don’t think I’ve kept in contact with any of my friends from school. I’ve got nothing in common with most of them. It wasn’t the happiest time for me.’ He looked at me steadily, and I felt myself flush. I went to tuck my hair again, and then dropped my hand. Was it my imagination or was there something slightly malicious in his gaze? Did he know something?

I struggled for a moment, wanting to answer, but not sure what I could say that wasn’t an outright lie. As I floundered, the silence growing more uncomfortable by the second, the wrongness of this whole situation struck me all over again. What the hell was I doing here? Ten years. Ten years.

‘I think everyone has a shit time at school,’ Nina said at last, breaking the pause. ‘I certainly did.’

I looked at her gratefully and she gave me a little wink.

‘What’s the secret, then?’ Tom asked. ‘To long-lived friendships? How have you managed to keep it up all these years?’

I looked at him again, sharply this time. Why the hell couldn’t he just let it drop? But there was nothing I could say – not without looking like a crazy person.

‘I don’t know,’ I said at last, trying to keep my voice pleasant, but I could feel the strain in my smile. I could only pray that my expression wasn’t as obviously fake as it felt. ‘Luck, I guess.’

‘Significant others?’ Melanie asked.

‘No. Just me. Not even a labradoodle.’ It was meant to raise a laugh, and they duly did, but it was a thin, lacklustre chorus with a pitying note. ‘Flo?’ I said quickly, trying to get the spotlight off myself.

Flo beamed. ‘Well, I met Clare at university. We were both studying History of Art and we got allocated to the same halls of residence. I walked into the Common Room and there she was, sitting in front of EastEnders, chewing her hair – you know that funny way she’s got of twisting a lock around her finger and nibbling on it? So sweet.’

I tried to remember. Had Clare ever done this? It sounded disgusting. A faint memory came of Clare sitting in the café next to the school, twisting her plait around her finger. Maybe she had.

‘She was wearing that blue dress – I think she’s still got it, can’t believe she fits into it! I’ve put on at least a stone since uni! Anyway I went up and said hi, and she said “Oh, I like your scarf,” and we’ve been BFFs ever since. I just – she’s just great, you know? She’s been such an inspiration, so supportive. There’s not many people who—’ She gulped, and broke off, struggling, and to my horror I saw she was welling up. ‘Well, anyway, never mind all that. She’s my rock, and I’d do anything for her. Anything. I just want her to have the best hen night ever, you know? I want it to be perfect. It means everything to me. It’s like – it’s like it’s the last thing I can do for her, you know?’

There were tears in her eyes, and she spoke with an intensity so fierce it was almost frightening. Looking around the circle I saw that I wasn’t the only one taken aback – Tom looked frankly startled, and Nina’s eyebrows had disappeared beneath her fringe. Only Melanie looked totally unconcerned, as if this was a normal level of emotion to feel for your best friend.

‘She’s getting married, not going to prison,’ Nina said drily, but either Flo didn’t hear, or she ignored the remark. Instead she coughed, and swiped at her eyes.

‘Sorry. Oh God, I’m such a sentimental moo! Look at me.’

‘And, er, what do you do now?’ Tom asked politely. As he said it I realised Flo had told us entirely about Clare and almost nothing about herself.

‘Oh.’ Flo looked down at the floor. ‘Well, you know. A bit of this. Bit of that. I … I took some time out after uni. I wasn’t in a good place. Clare was amazing. When I was— Well, never mind that. The thing is, she’s just – just the best friend a girl could have, honestly. God, look at me!’ She blew her nose and stood up. ‘Who’s for more tea?’

We all shook our heads and she took the tray and went through to the kitchen. Melanie took out her phone and checked the signal again.

‘Well, that was weird,’ Nina said flatly.

‘What?’ Melanie looked up.

‘Flo and the quote-unquote “perfect hen”.’ Nina spelled out. ‘Don’t you think she’s a little … intense?’

‘Oh,’ Melanie said. She glanced out of the door towards the kitchen and then lowered her voice. ‘Look, I don’t know if I should be saying this but there’s no sense in beating round the bush. Flo had a bit of a breakdown in her third year. I’m not sure what happened but she dropped out before her finals – she never graduated as far as I know. So that’s why she’s a bit, you know, sensitive, about that period. She doesn’t really like discussing it.’

‘Um, OK,’ Nina said. But I knew what she was thinking. What had been alarming about Flo wasn’t her reserve about what happened after uni – that was the least odd part of the whole thing. It was everything else that had been unnerving.

4

I WANT TO sleep, but they shine lights in my eyes. They test and scan and print me, and take away my clothes, stiff with blood. What’s happened? What have I done?

I’m wheeled down long corridors, their lights dimmed for night, past wards of sleeping patients. Some of them wake as I pass, and I can see my state reflected in their shocked expressions, in the way they turn their faces away, as from something pitiable or horrifying.

The doctors ask me questions I can’t answer, tell me things I can’t remember.

Then at last I am hooked up to a monitor and left, drugged and bleary and alone.

But not quite alone.

I turn painfully onto my side, and that’s when I see: through the wire-hatched glass of the door is a policewoman sitting patiently on a stool.

I’m being guarded. But I don’t know why.

I lie there, staring through the glass at the back of the police officer’s head. I want so badly to go out there and ask questions, but I don’t dare. Partly because I’m not sure if my woolly legs will carry me to the door – but partly because I am not sure if I can bear the answers.

I lie for what feels like a long time, listening to the hum of the equipment, and the click of the morphine syringe driver. The pain in my head and legs dulls, and becomes distant. And then at last I sleep.

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